To understand how some political parties seem to have woken up to the need for greater women’s political representation ahead of the general elections scheduled to be held from April 11 to May 19, you have only to look at the millennial female voter.
Anju Baa, a 20-year-old girl from an Adivasi community from Rajgampur village in Sundergarh district in northwestern Odisha, has completed her graduation. She is enrolled in a computer class and says she will apply for a job once her course is over. Marriage? She shrugs, first comes the job.
When Anju was just a baby, her mother, Rani Secundra Baa, class 12 pass and employed as a domestic worker in Delhi, voted in her first – and so far only – election. The candidate for Birmitrapur, her assembly seat in the year 2000, was tribal leader George Tirkey, who recently joined the Congress party. Why did she vote for Tirkey? Because, said Rani, her village had taken a collective decision to support him.
But nobody tells Anju who to vote for. Like her friends, she is guided by her marzi (choice). Would she prefer a woman candidate? “I will see who the candidate is. But so far, women have done good work in my village. Our sarpanch [elected head of the village council] is a woman and she is accessible and hard-working. She got a lot of road works done for us. So, yes, women are more dedicated than men when it comes to serving the community,” she told IndiaSpend over the phone.
Perhaps four-term Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik has been listening to girls like Anju, prompting him to announce that he is earmarking 33% of the state’s 21 parliamentary seats to women. Odisha will hold elections to Parliament and the state assembly (legislature) simultaneously in April.
Anju is representative of the new, assertive, millennial female voter who has been turning up in larger numbers than men to exercise the ballot.
This new voter is far more likely than her mother to have completed at least 10 years of school. She is more likely than her brother to be enrolled in school – as of 2016, the secondary school enrollment rate for girls was 75.8%, higher than boys’ 74.59%, as per World Bank data.
She is a part of India’s young, aspirational female generation with seven out of 10 girls planning to complete their graduation and three in four, like Anju, having decided on specific career paths, as a 2018 survey by Naandi Foundation found.
Like most young women of her generation, Anju believes that women should participate in politics, just like men. Among first-time women voters, 68% respondents said women should participate in politics at par with men, a survey conducted in February by the research organisation Lokniti-CSDS and the news portal The Quint found. Three out of five respondents said they would vote for a candidate and party of their choice, without being influenced by family.
More than a quarter-century of reservations for women in local governance bodies and panchayats, mandated by the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments of 1992, has created a cadre of politically aware women at the grassroots.
Women now comprise 46% of elected representatives at the various levels of panchayati raj institutions, according to the Ministry of Panchayati Raj.
“Nearly a million women have gone through the panchayat system as elected leaders and another two million have contested the elections and lost. They are very aware voters, aware of development and other issues of their villages,” said Bidyut Mohanty, who heads the Women’s Studies division at the Delhi-based think-tank, Institute of Social Sciences.
These women might not have broken through the glass ceiling, but they know what they want at the ballot and are unafraid of exercising choice.
“More and more women are coming out to vote not because of any top-down policy intervention but by the voluntary act of self-empowerment,” said Shamika Ravi, director of Brookings India, a think-tank.
The steady increase in female voter turnout is a “silent revolution”, said Ravi. In the 2014 general election, the gender gap between men and women was down to its narrowest ever–just 1.5 percentage points compared to a 15-percentage-point gap in the 1962 elections–and in 16 states and union territories, women’s voter turnout exceeded that of men.
Declining gender bias in voting can be seen across all the states, including the traditionally backward “BIMARU” – an acronym for Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh – notes a March 2014 paper written by Mudit Kapoor and Shamika Ravi in the Economic and Political Weekly. This decline “[i]s solely driven by the dramatic increase in women participation in the elections since the 1990s, while men participation has remained unchanged (sic)”, the authors wrote.
While the overall sex ratio has marginally worsened from the 1960s to the 2000s, the voter sex ratio has improved. Fewer incidents of violence and improved infrastructure are some of the reasons why more women are turning up to vote, said Ravi. “The cost of voting has come down for women,” she said, adding that earlier, when there was large-scale ballot stuffing – a type of electoral fraud when a person permitted only one vote submits multiple – it was invariably the votes of women and the elderly that were captured.
The Election Commission of India has since the 1990s embarked on a drive to get more women to come out and vote. “The first thing I did was to look at the gender ratio of the country,” said former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi. Despite a lopsided sex ratio, there were at least 20 million women missing from the electoral rolls. “We sent booth-level officers to go and find those missing women to get them enrolled as voters,” he told IndiaSpend.
Women are still missing from electoral rolls, but among the new voters announced earlier this month by the Election Commission, 43.5 million are women and 38 million are men, The Economic Times reported on March 12.
Correcting a historical imbalance
The announcement by two political parties, Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal in Odisha and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, that they will be fielding a significant number of women for the general elections in 2019 could go some way in redressing a historic imbalance in gender representation – women comprise 48.1% of the population but hold only 12.1% of Lok Sabha seats.
In Odisha, where assembly and parliamentary elections will be held simultaneously, Patnaik has said he will earmark 33% (seven) of the BJD’s parliamentary election tickets for women.
The BJD’s first list of nine contestants includes three women. Two of them claim family lineage. Schoolteacher Kaushalya Hikaka will contest from Koraput, and is the wife of the incumbent Member of Parliament Jhina Hikaka. Sunita Biswal is the daughter of former Congress chief minister Hemnanda Biswal who joined the BJD earlier in March 2019 and will contest from Sundergarh.
Only Pramila Bishoyi, who will contest from Aksa, the constituency from where Naveen Patnaik began his own political career 20 years ago, is a grassroots leader in her own right as president of the Sata Sankha Self Help Group.
“The BJD has always been committed to women’s empowerment,” said BJD MP Pinaki Misra. As far back as 1991, before the 73rd Constitutional Amendment of 1992 mandated 33% reservation for women in local bodies and panchayats, party founder Biju Patnaik had introduced 33% reservation through a state law, said Misra. In 2012, his son Naveen had raised this to 50%.
“Women have traditionally been the BJD’s support base and they are an extremely important voter base. They don’t shift easily unlike men who might be susceptible to allurements. Women are far more stable in their thinking,” said Misra, adding, “Politics remains male dominated because the system is male dominated. Truly meritorious women are finding it tough to break the glass ceiling and Naveen Patnaik is committed to helping them do this.”
Currently, of the 21 MPs representing Odisha in Parliament, only three are women. In the 147-member state assembly, women are only 8% of all legislators, less than the national average of 9%.
In 2014, women candidates for Odisha’s assembly elections were even fewer than in the previous 2009 election. Yet, more women won in 2014 than in 2009.
Women have traditionally found it difficult to campaign in assembly and parliamentary elections, said Pratyusha Rajeshwari Singh, who won a by-election to her husband’s Kandhamal parliamentary seat following his death a few months after the 2014 polls. “Reservation in the panchayats has brought forward many women but their voices still are not heard since they are dominated by the male members of their family. But with education, they are getting exposure, and they want to serve the people,” she said.
The assertion of women’s agency in Odisha can be seen not only in terms of their eagerness to vote but also in the rise of self-help groups in the state. There are at present seven million women self-help groups members under the state government’s Mission Shakti programme (not to be confused with the Centre’s space missile test of the same name announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday). In January 2019 at a Mission Shakti convention attended by some 50,000 women, Patnaik announced zero-interest loans of up to Rs 3 lakh to self help groups. And in November 2018, at the Make in Odisha summit, he had promised smartphones to 600,000 self help groups.
A day after Patnaik’s promise to earmark 33% of parliamentary tickets to women, Trinamool Congress Chief Mamata Banerjee released a list of her party’s candidates to Parliament. Of these, 41% are women, which is unprecedented for any election ever in the history of Indian democracy.
“Mamata doesn’t always have a calculated game-plan. She can be very impulsive,” said a political watcher in the state who did not wish to be named. “Some are going to be difficult seats to win, but by giving so many tickets to women, Mamata has kept her image as a path-breaker who doesn’t follow established rules.”
Women’s voter turnout in the state exceeded men’s even in the 2011 assembly election when Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress ended 34 years of uninterrupted Marxist rule. In the next assembly election, not only did women’s voter turnout remain higher than that of men but more women also contested the election as candidates. The results showed Mamata’s popularity had remained intact, with the Communist Party of India-Marxist reduced to number three in the state while the Bharatiya Janata Party emerged as the principal opposition.
An analysis of the initial lists of contestants by the BJP and the Congress shows that it is business as usual for the larger parties. Of the BJP’s 184 candidates announced in the first list, only 23, or 12.5%, are women. In the Congress’s list, 17 of 143 candidates, or 11.9%, are women.
“The BJP has already earmarked 33% to women within the organisation,” said Shaina NC, party spokesperson and treasurer of the Maharashtra BJP. “But that is not sufficient. Fighting elections is most important.”
What women voters want
Do women voters influence electoral outcomes? Absolutely, said Ravi of Brookings India. In a study of the Bihar assembly polls of February 2005 where no party had a majority, leading to a repoll eight months later, Ravi found the winning party changed in 87 of the 243 constituencies. But between February and October, the female voters’ percentage also increased from 42.5% to 44.5% while that of male voters declined from 50% to 47%.
“Women tend to vote for change while the men are more status quoist,” said Ravi. “Nitish Kumar [the current chief minister of Bihar] knows he was brought into power by the women vote, and political parties now are taking a leaf out of his book.”
What do women voters want? In Bihar, Kumar promised the state’s robust women’s SHGs that have more than 8.2 million members that he would bring in alcohol prohibition–a long-standing demand. Voted to office, he kept that promise.
In Odisha, the assiduous cultivation of women voters – prohibition, reservation in government jobs, vocational training, cycles, sanitary napkins, uniforms and scholarships for girls – has almost made women Patnaik’s “natural constituency”, said Pavan K Varma, national general secretary and spokesperson of the Janata Dal (United). “There has been institutionalisation of the way benefits of government policies flow to women,” he said.
Women voters often have the same demands as men, said Bidyut Mohanty. At the top of the list is employment and livelihood. But women also want health, education, access to drinking water, safety and security, and sanitation.
There is, however, no evidence to suggest that women vote as a block. Yet even a slight tilt or preference for a political party in the voting patterns of women can significantly alter results, said Sanjay Kumar, director of the Delhi-based research institute, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. With the shrinking of the gender gap in voter turnout, female influence on elections is likely to grow, he said.
Women do not necessarily vote for women – unless it is a female head of a party. For instance, in the 2016 assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, the vote share of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam of Tamil Nadu, then headed by the late J Jayalalithaa, among women was 10 percentage points higher than among men, wrote Centre for the Study of Developing Societies’s Kumar in an article for Mint. As a result, the party was able to reverse an anti-incumbency trend in the state. Similarly, in the West Bengal assembly election that same year, the vote share of the Trinamool Congress increased significantly among women voters as compared to men, said Kumar.
Little room for women candidates
Whichever way you look at it, women’s representation in Indian politics has been abysmal. Historically, Indian women who have occupied positions of power – from Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the first female president of the United Nations General Assembly, to Nirmala Sitharaman, India’s first stand-alone woman defence minister–have been exceptions and not norms.
The first Lok Sabha of 1952 had only 22 women MPs, or 4.5% of the House. Some 67 years later, women comprised 12.15%, the highest percentage ever, of the outgoing Lok Sabha with just 66 women MPs.
Representation in the state assemblies is worse, with a national average of 9%. In the 53 years since Nagaland was created as a state, it has never elected a woman MLA, while just one woman from the state, the late Rano Mese Shaiza, ever made it to parliament.
Haryana has the highest proportion of women MLAs at 15% of the total Assembly strength. In Kerala, women’s representation peaked at 9.3% in the 2001 election but has steadfastly remained below 6% since.
‘Winnability’ or success rate is the reason most often cited by political parties to explain their parsimony in fielding women at the elections. Even the BJD has reserved seats only for the parliamentary polls, despite the fact that assembly elections are being held simultaneously in Odisha.
Yet, data show that women contestants have consistently had a higher winning percentage than men.
The collective failure of political parties to field a critical mass of female candidates is worrisome because it highlights the absence of a pipeline of women leaders, said Shamika Ravi in a 2014 paper, Women in Party Politics. Co-authored with Rohan Sandhu, a research assistant at Brookings India, the paper notes, “Our political apparatus has collectively failed to nurture women leaders, leaving it unprepared should quotas in Parliament be legislated. In such a context, even if the Bill were to pass, its impact would be dubious.”
On paper, party constitutions talk about mandating positions for women within the organisation. Reality, however, is quite different.
In 2014, only five of the Congress party’s executive body of 42 members were women, found Ravi and Sandhu. The situation was just as discouraging in other parties. None of the 30 vice-presidents of the Trinamool Congress were women. At the Aam Aadmi Party, only two members of the 24-member national executive were women. At the CPM, only one member of the 12-member polit-bureau was a woman.
Only the BJP was somewhat better with 26 women among the 77 members of the party’s national executive.
“The absence of women in party leadership positions is indicative of an internal party infrastructure that is unsupportive of women’s political participation,” said Ravi.
And yet, it is political parties who are gatekeepers in women’s political participation. Party leaderships decide how many and which women they will field as contestants.
Despite the silence from the BJD on how many women it will field for the assembly elections, the announcements by the party and that of the Trinamool Congress to earmark parliamentary seats for women is welcome, said Ravi, because it will “lead to the creation of a pipeline of women leaders”.
There is no sign so far that other parties are likely to be inspired. Regardless, said Mohanty, the greater visibility of women on the 2019 campaign trail is the first step in achieving greater gender equity in India’s political life.
“Indian values don’t change overnight and it can take generations to see change,” said Mohanty. “We have a long way to go.”
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.